03 // The Notorious RBG and What We Expect of Our Heroes

One of my best friends is what I call a "quote person." She can recall quotes from TED talks, books, previous conversations, and podcasts at will, at the perfect moment. I am always in awe of her ability to do this. 

So when I quite literally won the (ticket) lottery to see Ruth Bader Ginsburg speak at Stanford's Memorial Church, I was determined to come away with some quotes.  Ginsburg is an associate justice of the US Supreme Court, all-around badass, avowed feminist, and thanks to a law student with a Tumblr account, a cultural phenomenon known as The Notorious RBG.

Image credit: notoriousrbg.tumblr.com

Ginsburg has become a hero to many in my generation. So much so that we're afraid of what the Supreme Court, and by extension life in America will be like when she retires. In a recent Washington Post article - 'Can She Eat More Kale?' - reporter Monica Hesse quoted a community organizer as saying,

“I’m interested in what her daily regimen is. Like, what are you all feeding RBG? Is she getting enough fresh air? Is she walking? Is she staying low-stress? What is she reading? Is she reading low-stress things?”

It came as no surprise that Memorial Church was packed when Ginsburg, as the 2017 Rathbun Visiting Fellow, arrived to deliver this year's Rathbun Lecture on a Meaningful Life. The Rathbun lecture originated with Harry Rathbun, a Stanford alumnus and law school professor from the 1930s to 1950s:

[He] was reading the school paper one day and was struck by a letter written by a graduating student. The student wrote that he feared venturing into a world he didn’t quite understand. Professor Rathbun later recalled, “I had to tell those kids that the meaning of life was up to them, that no teacher and no school and nobody else could hand it to them like a diploma."

The interior of Stanford's Memorial Church, the venue for Ginsburg's lecture. Image credit: Gitanjali Bhattacharjee

As an aspiring quote person and also someone who frequently thinks about the meaning of life, I had the Notes app open on my iPhone a good 20 minutes before the lecture was due to start. I took notes throughout the event, hoping the next Ginsburg quote would address that big question, how to live a meaningful life, or at least shed light on how I might go about answering it.

After some opening remarks, largely biographical in nature and well known to even the least scholarly of fans, Ginsburg sat in conversation with The Rev. Professor Jane Shaw, Dean of Religious Life. Shaw's questions didn't seem to animate Ginsburg at all, but to Shaw's credit, she did lead with the weightiest one - what does it mean to lead a meaningful life? Ginsburg answered succinctly:

To put it simply, it means doing something outside yourself... something to repair tears in the community, something to make life better for those less fortunate than you.

My favorite quote of the evening stemmed instead from the moderator's question about a memorable meal. Ginsburg recalled her family's tradition of celebrating New Year's with the Scalias:

Nino was a great hunter - he would kill Bambi and we'd have venison.

(What this has to do with living a meaningful life, I'll leave up to you.) For all the hype, for all the promise of the Notorious RBG addressing one of life's biggest questions, I walked out of Memorial Church feeling - and I hesitated to even think this, let alone say it or write it - disappointed.

I had taken pages and pages of notes - yet I had no better understanding of Ginsburg or the meaning of life to show for it. Ginsburg's responses were by and large already on the record. Later, a friend of mine pointed out that expecting someone to address the meaning of life might be an unreasonable expectation. I replied that it might be, but then again that was the whole point of the lecture. Her comment got me thinking, however. What is fair to expect of our role models and heroes? 

(1) Case Study: Cheryl Strayed

When I was still an undergrad at UT Austin, I read Cheryl Strayed's bestselling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I liked Strayed's writing a lot - at the time, I'd also gone through a grueling physical test that served as a pretext for working through much deeper, more compelling motivations. And Strayed, or her younger self, sounded like the kind of woman I wanted to be in many ways. Not the drugs or fraught marriage or financial anxiety - more the deepness of feeling, a quality I thought we had in common, allied with an underlying self-belief, the kind of belief in yourself you need to strike out alone and totally unprepared on a months-long hike. 

Image from the author's website.

 

When I heard that Strayed was going to be giving a talk at BookPeople, my favorite local independent bookstore, I was thrilled. I told a couple of my close friends who were also fans of Strayed and had been my teammates on that 10-week bike ride from Texas to Alaska. We got tickets, we showed up early to BookPeople, and we grabbed front-row seats, ready to hear Strayed's very particular voice, aglow with warmth and humor and hard-earned wisdom.

What I neglected to consider was that Strayed was in fact on a promotional tour for her then-new book, Brave Enough. The Goodreads description of this book reads, 

From the best-selling author of Wild, a collection of quotes--drawn from the wide range of her writings--that capture her wisdom, courage, and outspoken humor, presented in a gift-sized package that's as irresistible to give as it is to receive. 

In other words, this book is nothing new and an explicitly commercial object. In and of itself, that didn't bother me too much - most writers don't make it big, and who can blame the few that do for cashing in on their 15 minutes of fame? But when Strayed got up behind the podium at BookPeople and proceeded to almost preemptively defend her new book, I couldn't stand it.

She talked vaguely about how - and I'm paraphrasing -  in the age of Pinterest, when quotes were bandied about the Internet willy-nilly, she thought it would be great to curate a collection of her own quotes, to reclaim quotes as the property of writers. I recall vaguely that she attributed the original idea for a book of her own quotes to her agent, or someone at her publisher's. In any case, she wrote it, or curated it. She talked about this book of her own quotes like it was a public service rather than a cash-grab. And that's what infuriated and disappointed me. After her talk, Strayed stuck around to sign books and meet fans. I hung around in the bookstore as my friends waited in line to meet her, but I just wanted to go home and forget the whole afternoon.

Here was a writer I had admired not just for her craft and her voice, but for who she was, or who she portrayed herself to be - bold, forthright, emotionally vulnerable, and most importantly, honest. In Wild, Strayed didn't shy away from all the hurt she caused, the things she messed up, the questionable decisions she made. She wrote about them, put them into context, and reflected on how those experiences shaped her. As a reader, I respected her for it. Moreover, she wrote well. In Wild, Strayed's voice is distinct yet intimate, warm and self-aware. As the New York Times' literary critic Dwight Garner wrote in his 2012 review

It’s uplifting, but not in the way of many memoirs, where the uplift makes you feel that you’re committing mental suicide. This book is as loose and sexy and dark as an early Lucinda Williams song. It’s got a punk spirit and makes an earthy and American sound.

In negative reviews of Wild, readers tend to harp on how much they dislike Strayed the protagonist - she messed up her own life and then ran away from it, or she's self-absorbed and self-indulgent, or she spent months navel-gazing while trekking across some of the most beautiful and interesting terrain in the US. The list goes on. I tend to think these reviewers are missing the point. Strayed the protagonist was and/or did all of those things.

And so what? Memoirists don't have to be morally upstanding, virtuous, unimpeachable heroes. If that's the stuff memoirists were made of, I'd abandon the genre in a hurry. And it's always worth pointing out that male writers don't typically get bombarded with these vitriolic sorts of reviews. They aren't expected to be saints, especially not the ones who write about their adventures in the outdoors. In fact, in popular and literary culture, the further the male writer strays from society's notion of the right path, the more he's celebrated. 

All of which is to say that I respected Strayed for her willingness to tell her story, warts and blisters and divorce and all. I respected her even more for doing so in an intensely misogynistic culture that vilifies women for being human. And I didn't expect her to be anything other than what she portrayed herself to be in her memoir - unflinchingly honest.

I tend to think I was justified in my disappointment. Should we not expect our role models to be honest about what they do and why they're doing it? That's the sort of basic criterion we have for most of the people we interact with, after all.

I wonder though whether it's fair to expect consistency. I expected Strayed the person to be consistent with Strayed the writer, the memoirist - this is perhaps a murky effect of memoir, and likely the source of that old adage, "Never meet your heroes." I expected her to speak the way she wrote, and the way she spoke on Dear Sugar Radio, her podcast (of which I was and am a regular listener). That is, I expected her to be not just honest and forthright, but as honest and forthright in person - and on a promotional book tour - as she was in her memoir and on her advice podcast.

In hindsight, I can see how that might be unfair - after all, Strayed wasn't the only party involved in the production of the book; there were contracts and publishing houses and agents and a crew of people waiting for their share of the proceeds. Because of that, it might not have been fair to expect Strayed to own up to the crass commercialism of the book. That likely wouldn't have helped sales, and might even have violated contractual obligations. 

Even acknowledging the commercial constraints, however, I can't help but still feel disappointed - not in the hot, raw way I felt back in Austin, but in a lingering, wondering sort of way. What would it have been like if she just hadn't talked about the supposed motivation for the book? What if she'd thought up a less flimsy origin story? What if she had just owned the sheer opportunistic commercialism of it? 

(2) Conclusions

Though my image of Strayed as a role model was fractured by that afternoon at BookPeople, it wasn't shattered. I still tune in to Dear Sugar Radio once a week, and am disappointed when there's a rebroadcast or no new episode. I recommend Wild to people who haven't read it. I bought a copy of Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of Strayed's advice columns written for The Rumpus, and was distressed upon realizing I'd lost it.

But I think more carefully about my relationship to her, or more accurately to her public persona. I've thought more deeply about the particular reasons I admire her, and also the reasons I don't. I wonder a lot about the ethics of advice columns in general, and about Dear Sugar radio in particular - the ethics of making a product and maybe money off of people's stories and questions and sometimes suffering, of answering some letters but not all. I wonder why we think she and her co-host think they're qualified to give anyone advice, and whether there are in fact qualifications for giving advice. 

I think this is ultimately the utility of role models - they help us interrogate the world around us, our actions within and reactions to it. Sometimes they provide us with an example of how to be in the world - like Strayed the protagonist was an example to me of how I might really believe in myself, in my own strength, even if everything in my life had gone to shit. Sometimes they provide us with an example of how not to be. In a sense, role models have tread the path before us and left breadcrumbs marking their way. They are reporting back from what is still uncharted territory for us. They can give us examples, but no absolutes, no guarantees - the woods have changed since they were standing where we are standing now. 

Image credit: Gitanjali Bhattacharjee